Salsa sampler $6
Tortilla soup $6
As we left Taco Mamacita, the new Mexican eatery in Edgehill Village, my dining companion apologized for ordering so sparingly. While I was busy trying to get a taste for the place, which was packed at lunchtime, my dining buddy was unusually abstemious. When I asked why, I got this spurious old wife's tale: Never trust the food in a restaurant where the T-shirts are too well-designed.
If you stick too close to that rule of thumb, you would overlook a lot of good eats. You would, for example, miss out on Taco Mamacita's Mexican street corn dusted with Cotija cheese and slathered with chipotle cream sauce. Or you'd cheat yourself of TM's outstanding chicken tortilla soup, with tender roasted white meat bobbing in a soothing salty and citrus-tinged broth along with diced tomatoes, queso fresco and cool strips of buttery avocado.
But at some level, the wardrobe warning suits Taco Mamacita to a tee. In a room riotous with color and creative interior design and hopping with hospitable servers in cutie-pie T-shirts, we couldn't help but wish as much attention had gone into the edible details as into the packaging and presentation of the concept.
As the name implies, a roster of tacos — including fried shrimp, fried fish, beef brisket, braised pork and roasted chicken — anchors the menu at Taco Mamacita. Among the dozen varieties, we found a few standouts. The Caribbean jerk — spicy shredded chicken, crisp threads of cabbage, mango salsa, refried black beans and peach aioli — was the most surprising combination of ingredients, layering bright and earthy flavors and contrasting temperatures and textures. The shrimp po'boy BLT — fried shrimp with spicy remoulade lettuce, tangy pepperoncini peppers, bacon and pico de gallo — also delivered a memorable and unexpected medley of flavors accented with smoke, salt and vinegar. And the Memphis taco — braised pork, dill pickles and jalapeño slaw — was an admirable barbecue wrap. That facility with pulled pig is not surprising given the résumé of Mike Monen, a Chattanooga resident who co-owns Taco Mamacita with his wife Taylor and Nashville-based business partner Chad Phillips. A veteran of the South Carolina-based Sticky Fingers chain, Monen launched two of the barbecue restaurants in Chattanooga.
We suspect we would have also enjoyed the General Homeboy — breaded fried shrimp with Sweet Thai chili sauce, cabbage and radishes — if we had ordered spicy in lieu of mild. That said, if you like spice, test yourself with the extremely hot chipotle sauce on the tables.
Overall, the ingredients were fresh, and the tacos bulged with enough toppings that a $9 combo of two tacos with a side makes an ample meal.
But as we ordered our way down the list — through the sections titled "Tacos" and "More Tacos" — we began to lose track of the distinctions under a familiar blanket of cold flour tortillas and permutations of shredded iceberg lettuce, Monterey jack cheese and pico de gallo. If we could make a single alteration to the process, it would be to heat the tortillas in some way, whether by steaming or grilling; either method would add a hint of finish to the preparation.
We would also come up with some other way to finish the Nacho Mama platter, which emerged from the oven with an over-bronzed bed of chips topped with a pale assortment of queso, jalapeño slices, shredded iceberg lettuce, tomatoes and sour cream, with a few black beans dropped here and there. Ringing in at $8 and recalling the weaker moments of home cooking in this mama's own kitchen, the nacho platter made a weak overture.
In the end, the most memorable item on our table was the roasted Peruvian chicken, which lived up to the menu's promise of tender meat with hints of citrus and spice. (That said, the deep-bronzed skin was not in fact crisp, but slightly elastic.) Served with two sides from a list of street corn, cilantro rice, soupy charros beans, chipotle turnip greens, jalapeño slaw and sweet potato fries, the hulking half-bird was a steal at $10.
The greatest disappointments came from the drink menu. We sampled an elderflower mojito, which was so sweet we couldn't drink it, and on two separate occasions sampled the Skinny Margarita, a Splenda-sweetened concoction that smacked of sugar-free lemonade.
On the up side, in both cases, the server astutely enquired as to why we weren't polishing off the cocktails, and upon hearing our responses, set out to right the situations. She replaced the offending elderflower with a well-balanced strawberry margarita. In the case of the Splendiferous diet cocktail, the server graciously voided it from our bill without our even mentioning it. (Next time we'll probably just stick with the Elvez, a more traditional margarita recipe.)
In our experience, service was excellent, with friendly staff working efficiently in a very busy environment. (At Tuesday lunch, we scrounged seats at the bar instead of waiting for a table.) Coupled with Taylor Monen's inventive and festive layout with rusticated doors hovering in the lofty space above the booths and tables, corrugated metal covering the walls, and retro filament lights reflecting on mobiles of colorful glass balls, Taco Mamacita could draw the crowds that its predecessor, Rosario's, failed to maintain — especially when spring (not to mention the beer license) arrives and the patio opens. Taco Mamacita will look good in T-shirt weather.
Taco Mamacita serves lunch and dinner daily.
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